pi·​ous | \ ˈpī-əs How to pronounce pious (audio) \

Definition of pious

1a : marked by or showing reverence for deity and devotion to divine worship
b : marked by conspicuous religiosity a hypocrite—a thing all pious words and uncharitable deeds— Charles Reade
2 : sacred or devotional as distinct from the profane or secular : religious a pious opinion
3 : showing loyal reverence for a person or thing : dutiful
4a : marked by sham or hypocrisy
b : marked by self-conscious virtue : virtuous
5 : deserving commendation : worthy a pious effort

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Other Words from pious

piously adverb
piousness noun

The Complicated Uses of Pious

Pious has a bit of an image problem. From the beginning of its use in the 15th century this Latin descendant has been used to describe those who are simply very religious—that is, who are deeply devoted to their religion—but it has for centuries also described those who make a show of their religiousness and use it to assert their superiority. We see both in literature:

She sent for a minister, too, a serious, pious, good man, and applied herself with such earnestness, by his assistance, to the work of a sincere repentance, that I believe, and so did the minister too, that she was a true penitent….
— Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, 1722

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve. It is the pious slave-breeder devoting the proceeds of every tenth slave to buy a Sunday's liberty for the rest.
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854

Over the years other meanings have developed too. Pious can be used positively to describe those who are dutiful or virtuous, or things that are worthy. And it can be used negatively to describe hypocrisy. It is also used neutrally to distinguish what is religious from what is nonreligious in content, as in this humorous excerpt from Emily Brontë's 1847 Wuthering Heights:

Joseph was an elderly, nay, an old man—very old, perhaps, though hale and sinewy. "The Lord help us!" he soliloquized in an undertone of peevish displeasure, while relieving me of my horse, looking, meantime, in my face so sourly that I charitably conjectured he must have need of divine aid to digest his dinner, and his pious ejaculation had no reference to my unexpected advent.

Because the word is about religion and religiousness, many associate pious with the Bible. It is, however, wholly absent from many translations of the Bible, probably because of its ambiguous meaning. Pious is, though, included in The New Revised Standard Version and the paraphrasing Living Bible, among a number of others:

The blessing of the Lord is the reward of the pious, and quickly God causes his blessing to flourish.
— Sirach 11:22, New Revised Standard Version

You try to look like saintly men, but underneath those pious robes of yours are hearts besmirched with every sort of hypocrisy and sin.
— Matthew 23:28, The Living Bible

Piety, which most often refers to simple religious devotion, doesn't have the same problem, and is more widely used in biblical translations.

Examples of pious in a Sentence

We must ask to what extent, and at however unconscious a level, a conflict arises in the pious political mind when it is sworn to uphold the civil religion of the Constitution. — E. L. Doctorow, Free Inquiry, October/November 2008 But our problem is the lack of any shared or coherent attitude toward the rest of the world, without which, as Judt acknowledges, Europe exists in pieces, an outsize Switzerland held together by nothing more solid than pious sentiment. — Nicholas Fraser, Harper's, May 2006 The other side of the masonry block was covered with a web of ancient graffiti, she said, left by pious visitors to the tomb. — Tom Mueller, Atlantic, October 2003 The news offered so many occasions for pious or ribald commentary that any chance of agreement about what any of it meant was lost in a vast din of clucking and sniggering. — Lewis H. Lapham, Harper's, August 1997 Japanese schools have another eccentricity, which is the pious, Sunday-school-like enthusiasm of students and teachers alike for education about values. Teachers sometimes sound so saccharine that they would make Mr. Rogers look like a cynic. — Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times Magazine, 17 Aug. 1997 They lived a quiet, pious life. I'm tired of hearing politicians making pious pronouncements about their devotion to the people.
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Recent Examples on the Web

The story of France’s Louis IX, known as Saint Louis to Catholics, is that the pious monarch died of plague while leading the Eighth Crusade, an attempt to shore up control of the Holy Land in the name of Christianity. Jason Daley, Smithsonian, "Fear of Foreign Food May Have Led to the Death of This Crusader King," 26 June 2019 This, however, was more of a pious ideal than actual practice. National Geographic, "How Jesus's childhood influenced the Gospels," 16 May 2019 The scope of his scholarship was breathtaking: textbooks of Greek and Latin, manuals for pious Christians, political treatises advising kings and rulers, pacifist polemics against the concept of a just war. Eamon Duffy, The New York Review of Books, "The World Split in Two," 18 Apr. 2019 On her walk to the grocery store with the irritatingly pious OfMatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop), June learns that Chicago, once controlled by the resistance (the real America!), is about to surrender to Gilead. Elena Nicolaou, refinery29.com, "The Handmaid's Tale," 6 June 2019 In fact, Howe’s poetry was neither pious, sentimental, nor morbid. Elaine Showalter, The New York Review of Books, "Whitman, Melville, & Julia Ward Howe: A Tale of Three Bicentennials," 27 May 2019 The chapel is, in a sense, an immense and fragile vessel: Louis IX (later St. Louis), that most pious of monarchs, built it as a container for relics of Christ’s passion. Bruce Dale, National Geographic, "Adored, neglected, and restored: A 1968 Nat Geo feature explored Notre Dame," 17 Apr. 2019 And there was pushback from the pious, who feared women sporting beachwear would infiltrate public spaces. Niharika Mandhana, WSJ, "Maldives, a Destination for the 1%, Chases the Backpacker Buck," 10 Feb. 2019 Cézanne himself tended toward the right, embracing pious Catholicism in his last decade, and though not overtly anti-Semitic, like Degas and Renoir, nevertheless siding with them in the Dreyfus Affair. Rachel Aviv, The New Yorker, "The Lurchingly Uneven Portraits of Paul Cézanne," 21 Feb. 2011

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'pious.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of pious

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

History and Etymology for pious

Middle English, from Latin pius

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6 Jul 2019

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The first known use of pious was in the 15th century

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English Language Learners Definition of pious

: deeply religious : devoted to a particular religion
disapproving : falsely appearing to be good or moral


pi·​ous | \ ˈpī-əs How to pronounce pious (audio) \

Kids Definition of pious

: showing devotion to God

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More from Merriam-Webster on pious

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with pious

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for pious

Spanish Central: Translation of pious

Nglish: Translation of pious for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of pious for Arabic Speakers

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